Science of Us’s Favorite Books About Psychology From 2014

ca. July 1974 --- Casanova the house cat. --- Image by ? Morton Beebe/Corbis
Photo: Morton Beebe

It’s a great time to be fascinated by psychology; new books on the subject seem to be coming out by the truckload every week. With 2014 almost behind us, it’s time to look back. Here, in no particular order, are five of Science of Us’s favorite books about human behavior from the last year.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My copy of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is worse for the wear: I’ve read it twice, and it’s underlined, highlighted, and dog-eared. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and New Yorker staff writer, writes beautifully but directly about the need to improve our approach to end-of-life care in this country. It is, of course, too big of a goal for any one book, but Gawande effectively equips his readers with the language they’ll need to broach the uncomfortable subject of death with their aged or ailing loved ones: I’m worried, for example, is an effective and succinct way to begin a conversation about the end. The book made me cry, and it made me consider some very uncomfortable issues; it also made me call my grandma. (M.D.)

The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us — And How They Don’t by Nick Yee 
The question of how online environments change people’s behavior is a fascinating and important one, especially given the recent focus on online harassment and its sometimes-tragic consequences. The Proteus Paradox is part explanation of what we know about the potential of online environments to alter human behavior for the better, and part complaint that the first few generations of them have been so lacking in imagination and so prone to the prejudices and stereotypes of the offline world. Yee, a researcher at the video-game company Ubisoft, does a clear, engaging job explaining just how little of the web’s potential has been reached. (J.S.)

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your “Good” Self — Drives Success and Fulfillment by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener
This book made clear for me something I really should’ve figured out before, but had never thought much about: There is a point to every human emotion or state of mind, even the ones we’d consider “bad.” Feeling grouchy, for example, seems to help people zero in on the details that cheerier people miss. And while we would consider “being in the moment” good, and spacing out not-as-good, there are some cognitive benefits to daydreaming. Essentially, this book provides you with the scientific evidence to prove your bad habits are maybe not quite as bad as you thought they were. But besides that, it’s a simply pleasant — and often very funny — read. (M.D.)

Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation by Gabriele Oettingen
Nothing is more American than positive thinking. Keep your head up! Visualize success! If it all sounds a bit too good to be true, that’s because it is: Oettingen, a psychology researcher at NYU, deploys years of research to debunk the notion of a sturdy link between positive thinking and successful outcomes. In many cases, she explains, slipping into fantasies about how great it will be when we achieve our goals actually decreases the odds we will do so, largely because when we revel in those fantasies we’re less likely to properly identify the obstacles standing between us and success. And Oettingen doesn’t just describe the problem, of course — she also offers her research-backed alternative, a method she calls “WOOP,” specifically designed to help people sidestep the potential pitfalls of positive thinking. WOOP! (J.S.)

Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian R. Little
Extroverts and introverts get all the attention, but psychologists who study personality say there are four other pieces that make up a personality: Each of us have within us varying degrees of openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Little, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Cambridge, explores the ways our natural selves shape our behavior, and the degree to which we can fight against our natures. Plus, he includes a neat little theory about when introverts should avoid coffee, which has changed my own caffeine habits, perhaps permanently. (M.D.)

Our Favorite Psychology Books From 2014